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New state budget strong on higher education

Going into this year’s state budget process, concerns were high financial impact of the pandemic would bring tough limits on spending and restrict state leaders’ ability to make necessary investments in critical areas, especially higher education, to successfully position Ohio for the post-pandemic recovery.

Fortunately, our next state budget contains the right resources in the right places, as well as some innovative new approaches to help move Ohio forward.

Second Chance Voucher Pilot: Many college students start down the road to a college or university degree but, for whatever reason are not able to complete them. More than 1.2 million Ohioans are estimated to be in this situation. A new $3 million effort initiated by the state budget is specifically targeted at helping these students return to college to complete their programs. The $2,000 in support for up to 1,500 students is expected to help adults restart education or upgrade careers, as well as those whose careers were derailed by the pandemic now looking to upgrade their skills and job options.

With Ohio facing a shortage of skilled workers, helping these 1.2 million Ohioans finish degrees and take up in-demand jobs is good for them and our state. If only 5 percent of these students obtain degrees over each of the next six years, our state would meet a third of its goal for new college degrees and be significantly closer to meeting our workforce needs.

More nursing Degree Options: With this budget, Ohio will join the growing list of states proactively addressing nursing shortages by activating their state’s community colleges to help address problems our hospitals and health care providers experience when faced with prolonged shortages of nurses to meet workforce needs.

In addition to the decades-long nursing shortage, more than 1 million nurses are expected to retire nationwide in the next decade, meaning the need for nurses is only going up. With complexity of health care and standards of care increasing, more hospitals want nurses with bachelor’s degrees. Community colleges already are a main source of health care professionals in Ohio and have the instructors, facilities and equipment to award bachelor’s degrees in nursing. Additionally, lower cost of a community college tuition means more students can afford to pursue a degree. This change is a win-win-win for health care providers, patients and our state by providing a pathway to increase the number of highly trained nurses in Ohio.

Support for Short Term Certificates: The pandemic accelerated a fundamental shift in higher education preferences for many Ohio students choosing short-term training for industry certificates and credentials to help them quickly get training they need for in-demand jobs, especially in technology, health care and logistics. While community colleges have been adapting to this need, public financial support for these students’ training goals has been scarce, until now. The state budget aligns with this contemporary development well by including certificate and credential students in existing state financial aid programs.

Helping Ohioans and Ohio’s employers navigate post-pandemic workforce landscape will require intentional focus from policymakers, higher education leaders, employers and student and worker advocates. Ohio’s 23 community colleges are ready to do their part in collaborating to meet the challenge. Over the past decade, we have embraced holistic, student-focused reforms to improve the academic, career and financial success of our students. Our colleges did not do this because it was financially advantageous (in fact, many of these reforms come with significant upfront costs), but because we know it is imperative that we improve how we serve our most vulnerable students.

Community colleges are main pathways to higher education for 200,000 Ohioans every year, many who work multiple jobs or balance full-time employment with family and college responsibilities. They have grit and determination, and Ohio needs them to succeed. The new investments in this year’s state budget will strengthen our ability to both educate our students in the classroom and find ways to help them outside the classroom. For those 1.2 million Ohioans who paused their education, for whatever reason, there has never been a better time to come back. We’re fortunate to have state leaders who understand the big picture when it comes to workforce and how to invest in the futures of Ohioans and our state.

Jack Hershey is president and CEO of the Ohio Association of Community Colleges.

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